Nov. 18, 2011
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Pressure can manifest itself in many ways for elite athletes.
“Pressure,’’ Mohammed Ahmed said, “is opportunity.’’
“Pressure,’’ Maverick Darling said, “is knowing that everyone is looking to you to win.’’
That would cover expectations as a team and/or an individual.
Pressure can translate into other things, too.
“Sometimes it’s a motivating factor,’’ Ahmed said. “Sometimes it’s that last energy that gets into you once you start the race. It’s all about how you use it. I hope we use it the best we can.’’
Ahmed and Darling are two links in the chain that makes up the UW men’s cross country team. Going into Monday’s NCAA championship meet, the Badgers are ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“Not at all,’’ said Darling, a junior from Ovid, Mich. “We know this is not our meet. On paper we are not the team to beat. We know Oklahoma State is the team to beat. They bring everybody back.’’
The Cowboys have won back-to-back titles.
“It’s just a number,’’ Darling said of being No. 1. “It’s not like football where the No. 1 ranking actually means something at the end of the year.
“It’s all about that one day, and doing it on that one day.’’
The target date would be Monday in Terre Haute, Ind., where the Badgers finished third behind Florida State and Oklahoma State in last season’s NCAA championship.
Considering that Ahmed was 12th and Darling was 13th in the 2010 race — thereby earning All-America status — to what degree will the pressure be self-induced for both runners?
“Everyone on this team has a job going into this meet,’’ Darling said. “We all know what it is — it’s to be in the Top 20 or Top 25 individually.
“I guess that’s self-induced pressure knowing that you’d better be in that Top 25 or you’re going to screw up your part of the puzzle.’’
Ahmed says that self-induced pressure is “what you want to accomplish; what you see yourself as doing’’ as opposed to the pressure that an individual might feel carrying on the program’s legacy.
Or what Ahmed called, “The pride of running for the Badgers.’’
Did he see himself winning the Big Ten cross country title?
“The thought came up,’’ said Ahmed, a junior from St. Catharines, Ontario. “I wasn’t surprised that I won. I’ve worked extremely hard. I’ve never worked this hard in my life. I’m very confident.
“I’ve been enjoying every single second of running for the past three years, especially last year, especially this season since I started training for cross country.
“I wasn’t surprised I was the individual champ, but I really didn’t care if someone else won.’’
“Instead of one guy thinking the race through for himself, it’s five guys helping each other through the thinking process,” coach Mick Byrne said. “Ultimately, the bottom line is that they just want to win. It’s all about the team.’’
That selflessness runs through Ahmed, Darling, Ryan Collins, Reed Connor and Elliot Krause. You get the picture. They all crossed the finish line in unison at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional last Saturday to give UW its 10th-consecutive regional team title and automatically qualify the Badgers to a record 40th-consecutive NCAA meet.
“I think we’ve got a really relaxed vibe within the team,’’ Darling said. “The guys are excited. Everything is good right now. Knock on wood (He rapped his knuckles on the table).
“We’re just going to take it as another meet, run together and hopefully get it done.’’
Can the Badgers pull off that strategy in the nationals? The pack mentality?
“Nothing has changed, we’ll run as a group,’’ Darling insisted. “It’s a little more challenging because there are more people out there. Last year Mo (Ahmed) and I were able to find each other.
“Landon (Peacock, who finished 20th in the 2010 NCAA meet and has since graduated) met up with us later and we worked together and moved our way up.
“The first (kilometer) will be a little chaotic, but it will work itself out and we’ll find each other.’’
Ahmed sees things unfolding in the same fashion.
“We’ll have the same focuses at the beginning,’’ he said. “You have to get out; you can’t get tense during the early portion of the race. Those things are helped by having teammates around you.
“We’ll definitely try to find each other and run together as much as we can. Everyone on our team has worked evenly as hard and we’re evenly talented. Why not run with each other?’’
That question was tossed at UW head coach Mick Byrne.
“I’ve said all along that the comfort zone that they get into — when they’re running together — takes a lot of that pressure off,’’ Byrne responded.
“Instead of one guy thinking the race through for himself, it’s five guys helping each other through the thinking process. That’s a great comfort and we don’t expect that to change Monday.
“Ultimately the bottom line is that they just want to win. It’s all about the team.’’
What about the pressure?
“I haven’t thought an awful lot about it, particularly with his group of guys,’’ Byrne said. “They’re keeping me sane this week. As long as I’m sane they’re not going to pick up on any pressure from me.’’
Said Darling, “He kind of laughs at it (pressure). He just says, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do.’’’
Byrne volunteered an example on how these runners handle their business. Returning from last weekend’s regional meet, the team had a two-hour layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
“And every one of those guys was studying or doing something related to school work,’’ Byrne said. “The only thing they talked about on Sunday after the race was the schoolwork they had to do.
“Nothing has changed, we’ll run as a group,’’ insisted Darling. “It’s a little more challenging because there are more people out there. The first (kilometer) will be a little chaotic, but it will work itself out and we’ll find each other.’’
“From a coaching perspective, it’s like, ‘Wow, let them be college kids. Let them take care of their business and we’ll talk about the (NCAA) race later on in the week.’
“It’s like you’re playing a game of deflection. You’re trying to stay away from thinking about the race because if you think about it you can make it bigger than it actually is.’’
And then it can become overwhelming, he agreed.
Truth is, it’s really not just another race.
“It’s a different ballgame,’’ Byrne conceded. “As much as you talk to the kids about it being just another race, it has that ‘NCAA Championship’ on it.’’
Still, he believes that his runners have put themselves in a position to handle everything.
That would include the expectations and the pressure.
“Part of it is trying to live up to the tradition here,’’ he said.
The Badgers have finished in the Top 10 for 15 consecutive years, an NCAA record.
“They are aware of that,’’ Byrne said. “Is that fair? It’s just the reality of being a Badger.’’
He promptly added, “Our guys are aware of the tradition and they’re embracing that.’’
Head coaches have a unique awareness, too.
“As a coach, you can over-coach this meet; a lot of coaches do,’’ Byrne said.
Any race plan that he may have today may be completely different on Monday.
“When you come into this meet,’’ Byrne said, “anything can happen. Every single year something goes right for some school and something goes wrong for a lot of schools.’’
In other words — his own words — you can’t worry about what you can’t control.
“We’ve accomplished great things so far this year,’’ Byrne said. “We’re having a lot of fun and it’s been a great ride. Ultimately, we’re going to be judged by what happens out there next Monday.’’
He might ask himself, “Can we live up expectations that other people are putting on us?’’
He probably already knows that answer.
“Mick never puts much pressure on us,’’ Ahmed said. “Every single one of us has the same goal and the same mindset and when you have that, it’s beautiful.
“Good things are going to happen.’’